Two athletes in their mid-thirties delivered notable performances in the World Cup on Sunday morning. In the “other” World Cup, in Qatar, Lionel Messi, now 35, crowned an all-time career by leading Argentina to victory over France. And in the “real,” or at least colder, World Cup, Rosie Brennan, now 34, reached the podium in the 20km skate in Davos, placing third behind Jessie Diggins and fellow comeback kid Ingvild Flugstad Østberg.
This essay is mostly about Brennan, but first, a few words on Messi.
Alongside the plaudits for the Argentinian soccer great, and the career retrospectives, and the “what does this mean for his legacy” hot takes, essayist Franklin Foer penned a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic. His thesis was that Messi, unlike his longtime foil and comparand Ronaldo, thrived in the Qatar World Cup by learning how to work alongside his age-induced physical limitations rather than fight against them:
“Without the legs to carry him, Messi economized his movements. Rather than pretending that he was a young man, he played like an older one. He ambled through games, saving himself for the moments that he could assert himself. He showed a remarkable awareness about how he might be able to parcel out his dwindling corporeal self, how he needed to make choices about when to give himself fully.”
The article does not mention, but also makes me think of, the statistics surrounding late-career LeBron James, how he now typically moves fewer feet per minute played than anyone else on the court, while still putting up 20 and 10 every night and always seeming to be in the right place at the right time. Experience counts for something in sports, often quite a bit.
Foer’s thesis is well taken. It is also not directly applicable to endurance sports. Brennan had to cover the exact same 20 kilometers on Sunday that everyone else in the field did. She of course can use her experience to help with pacing, and to ski more efficiently, and to find the tactics or the mental technique cues that work best for her — but she still had to ski the whole course. There’s not much allowance for taking plays off when the final podium spot is decided by one-half of one second after 49 minutes of racing.
* * *
I was born in 1981, like Brennan a fellow child of the 1980s. (Brennan was born in December 1988, at the other end of the Reagan administration.) It’s instructive to map Brennan’s career onto mine, such as it is, to help illuminate just how long she has been doing this for.
When Brennan logged her first FIS race, at 2006 U.S. Nationals at Soldier Hollow, I was a 20-something recent college grad living in Portland, Oregon, riding my bike in the rain and trying to figure out what to do next in life. When she logged her first World Cup start, a nation’s group start in Whistler in 2009, I was in my first year of law school.
When she was graduating from Dartmouth and trying to become established as a pro skier with APU, in 2012, I was beginning my first career, as an attorney. When she was demoted from the national team for the second time, in 2018, after unwittingly racing at the Pyeongchang Olympics with mono, I was six years into this career. When she self-funded her 2018/2019 season and began achieving more success, I was into my second career, as a stay-at-home parent. When she saw years’ worth of healthy, steady training finally and emphatically come to fruition, winning back-to-back World Cup races in December 2020, I was homeschooling two children during a pandemic, which is sort of like being a stay-at-home parent on steroids.
And when Brennan took this most recent World Cup podium, her seventh, I had recently started career number three, startup nordic ski journalist, with a healthy side of driving my kids all around town multiple times a day.
I do not mean to suggest, by this recitation, that my personal and professional CV is of any great interest. It isn’t, at least not compared to Brennan’s. I rather want to underscore that success at high-level endurance sport, for many athletes, takes time, specifically the relentless accretion of training hours across years and decades.
Think about what you were doing in 2008. Brennan was training then. Think about what you were doing in 2012. Brennan was training then. In 2015. In 2018. In 2021. Etc. Two workouts a day, six to seven days a week, no matter the weather, life constantly demarcated by finishing the last workout or getting ready for the next one, every logistical choice made with an eye to getting out the door again the next time. Brennan graduated from high school in 2007. She’s been doing this ever since.
And the thing is, it doesn’t always work! Many athletes spend a decade on the World Cup and don’t come away with a single individual podium to show for it. Brennan has seven now, all achieved after age 32. (* I just factchecked this, and individual podium no. 1 in fact occurred three days before her 32nd birthday. My general point holds.)
Jessie Diggins, the athlete in whose shadow Brennan seems destined to have spent her career, reaches that age next August. Imagine Diggins fully breaking out only next year, toiling her whole career in relative anonymity before finally taking that first podium in November 2023, in her third stint on the U.S. Ski Team. That’s how long Brennan has been doing this for.
Anyway, it doesn’t always work, as witness Brennan’s ski career through its first decade, or the career of anyone who trains and works and cares just as much as the athletes on the podium, but who never gets there once, let alone seven times (and counting).
But you can also consider the rest of Brennan’s races during just Period 1 of this season. Here are some emails that Brennan has sent out to media during the start of the 2022/2023 World Cup season. (The first one of these was sent to Nordic Insights exclusively, since I was the only person who sought comment on a day that Brennan didn’t make the sprint heats; all others were sent to a small distribution list of Nordic Insights, FasterSkier, and a few other outlets.)
- November 25, 32nd, Ruka classic sprint: “Nothing went wrong today. I felt very good about my skiing, but just didn’t have the gear I needed. I picked up a lot of speed in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the lethargic start. I unfortunately missed a lot of speed and power training this fall and as someone who isn’t naturally springy, that took a toll on me so I have faith it will come around in time and with some race efforts. I am looking forward to some distance racing now.”
- December 2, DNS, Lillehammer: “I caught a cold on Thursday and made the difficult decision to not race today. As with many Olympic sports, we don’t have salaries so without sponsors, my income is solely made up of prize money and result bonuses from equipment sponsors. As such, missing a race you consider your biggest strength hits extra hard. I am heartbroken with the bad timing of this illness and hope it passes quickly.”
- December 9, 21st, Beitostølen classic sprint: “I was happy with my qualifier after a bad sprint in Ruka and sitting out sick last weekend. The heats ended up being more technical than I had hoped and I struggled to find space and the speed I needed to advance. I was so happy to be in the heats again and to be reminded of all the little details sprinting requires to put together a good day. I’m glad to be back at it racing and am really looking forward to the 10k tomorrow.”
- December 17, 13th, Davos skate sprint (“Brennan, unfortunately, was a distant third and did not advance,” as USSS slightly pointedly wrote of her quarterfinal heat): “I did not have the day I was hoping for today. I am really struggling to find my power and speed in sprinting which has been frustrating for me. My fall and early season has been marred by illness and I think that has made it difficult for me to find all my gears. I am doing my best to find patience as there are still many races left in the season, but patience is not my strength so it’s providing me with quite the challenge.”
I’m cherrypicking these a little — there were some better days in there that I’m eliding — but all of those races, or DNS/non-races, occurred within the first three weeks of this year. I think of what it must be like to finish 32nd or 21st in your sport, the stark math of the results sheet telling everyone you know exactly where you stand, then go out to the start line again tomorrow and tell yourself that this time will be better, that you can be second today instead of 32nd. Pro athletes are mentally tough, too.
And sometimes, if you stick with it long enough, that then manifests as:
December 18, 3rd, Davos 20km skate: “Today was a great day for USA!!! I was pleased to turn around a disappointing day yesterday into a podium today. It was a tight race the whole way and I am thrilled to have just nipped the podium spot. I have never done a 20k interval start which was probably true for the whole field today. That made it really tricky to know the pace or really what to expect. I love the course here and love skiing at altitude so I had some confidence that I could find a steady pace and hold it. I had really good skis today and did all I could to push the downhill on the last lap which just barely snuck me on the podium. It was great to share the podium with Diggs and is a great way to close out period 1 racing. Now it’s all eyes on the Tour!”
* * *
I am not trying to eulogize Brennan’s career here; I don’t know how much longer she will do this for, but I hope that it is for some time yet to come. But it has to be said that Brennan is by this point, chronologically speaking, well within what is for most athletes the tail end of their career. Indeed, the list of top-10 oldest women’s World Cup winners currently looks like this, Wikipedia informs me:
|athlete and rank||age|
|1. Hilde Gjermundshaug Pedersen||41 years 60 days|
|2. Marit Bjørgen||37 years 362 days|
|3. Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi||36 years 179 days|
|4. Larisa Lazutina||35 years 290 days|
|5. Nina Gavrylyuk||34 years 259 days|
|6. Gabriella Paruzzi||34 years 218 days|
|7. Anita Moen||34 years 120 days|
|8. Inger Helene Nybråten||34 years 51 days|
|9. Justyna Kowalczyk||34 years 12 days|
|10. Kateřina Neumannová||34 years 1 day|
Brennan admittedly didn’t win the race on Sunday, but if she had, at 34 years, 16 days old, she would have slotted herself into ninth place on this list. And Brennan herself shared this post, from fellow Anchorage athlete and child of the eighties Denali Strabel, soon after her race:
There’s a catch here, which is that Brennan’s ski age is much younger than her age age. Brennan has made this point already, better than I could, in a blog post entitled, well, “Why Skiing Age is More Important than my Biological Age.”
The post is essentially a paean to process, a look at what she’s learned from staying in the sport for so long and trying to improve. The moment at which Brennan’s chronological age begins to work against her will, inexorably, come at some point, as it does for all of us. *cries softly in 41-year-old* But I know that I am not alone in hoping that Brennan’s ski-age adolescence helps to ward off that day for as long as possible.
— Gavin Kentch
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